Beauty Truth Art
In his famous apostrophe to the “Grecian Urn”, the immortal poet, John Keats, wrote:
“Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
This very famous statement on Beauty and Truth and their interchangeability poses a very important question in the postmodern era. Art and its convention of the ‘Beauty’/‘Beautiful’ has imperceptibly changed over the decades, from something that should reflect the Ideal (and in reality, twice removed from it, as per Plato), or in essence complete and offering pleasure to the senses to something, that expresses the unique consciousness/angst of the creator. Art has thus rediscovered its definition for beauty.
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If beauty is truth, then it may dare to be grotesque too, for truth may be harsh or horrific. Beauty does not suggest something beautiful in the actual sense of the term, but that, which comes closer to the true expressions of the self and the vision of a generation’s psyche, that is fragmented, kitsch-like, complex and beyond the metanarratives of a suffocating conformity. Beauty has evolved into a freedom for expression. Contemporary art, especially questions the paradigms of aesthetic values, with artists like Chapman Brothers or Justin Novak producing artwork that are clearly meant to provoke reactions and challenge notions of beauty, that had it’s roots in Kant’s “Critique of Judgment” (1790).
It contemplated on the “pure” aesthetic experience of art consisting of a “disinterested” observer, pleasing for its own sake and beyond any utility or morality. Now, the very word ‘pleasing’ may have different boundaries and contemporary art is trying to escalate their claims. If Marcel Duchamp made a fountain out of a urinal in 1917, that hurtled the Dadaist movement and that later amplified into a surrealist tendency looking into primitive art for their subconscious inspiration, to reveal the mental process, then the essential motivation behind the whole thing was subversion.
If primitivism was motivating a new dimension by which beauty of the mind was revealed, then Picasso completely subjectified art and personal experience into a fourth dimension and created a cubist movement to claim a break down of a canon that no longer held on to techniques, symbols and least of all - universal criteria for judging anything. There are many socio-ideological forces behind the same and the destructive World Wars had many reasons to question the notions behind the traditional idea of Beauty, and it addressed the subjective, transcendental and alienated psyche of modern man. Metaphysical hopelessness gave way from absurdity to beauty, while the meaninglessness of this ‘Being’, made beauty seem more akin to grotesque, either by derision or by the light of their tragic truth.
What makes the question more intriguing is that, whether contemporary art has found a better form of beauty (constructed to please and create a certain discursive paradigm) in the grotesque, since it frees us from any moral and political/ideological constraints? Can it be linked to greater dimensions of teleological magnitude, or should it be treated as an alternative method of understanding true aesthetic, if not the complete aspect of aesthetic itself? Is grotesque possible without the knowledge of Beauty itself?
I shall attempt to answer the following questions that I raised, with a few examples. One must first understand the idea behind perception and the dialogical force that surrounds it. If the world is raised as an illusion in one’s mind then the mind has been symbolically trained to read it as a language. This matrix of complex spontaneity is ‘paradigmatically’ and ‘syntagmatically’ (Roman Jakobson, 1987) being challenged, when Grotesque plays the part of Beauty. The Dystopia arises out of a shattered archetype that must restructure itself to include elements of the grotesque within the beauty, and reach towards the same aesthetic experience: the sublime.
But interestingly what produces sublime is shock. But one must not confuse this with the cathartic experience of the ‘Tragic’ pity and terror, but something quite opposite to an ideal communicative situation that all such art produces. Thus this element of mimesis and/or representation of the ideal have given way to an “infinite subjectivity” (Hegel, Lectures on Fine Art, given in the 1820s), or the abyss of the human mind and condition. But the self is “interpellated” as per Lacan and later Althusser too estimated the impossibility of a single position from where one can judge, since the self was preconditioned with a lot of “logocentricism” (Derrida), which are again socio-culturally specific as per Barthes. Thus there is a complete inquiry into art through the artists’ personality or self (or selves).
Justin Novak’s “disfigurine” often conforming to the bourgeoisie values, distort them to such an ironic extent that one cannot miss the counter realism that it offers. Often it serves to offer no alternative reality, but just launches one amidst a grotesque re-examination of old values and with its attendant disillusionment. Once the silent barrier between class and gender is dismantled, the escape is into nothingness – the sublime height of vast unending problems, and this underscores the definite presence and the horrors of undying conformism.
If truth is beauty, then Novak’s artworks reveal the finer sides of it by shattering the comfortable and compartmentalized thought processes with which one can objectify art from a safe distance. The grotesque closeness of these truths, give beauty to the mind by releasing it from the shackles of confinement and overpowering illusions. Truth is not universal, but a power to accept the inextricable complexity of human behaviour, mind and his/her interrelationship with their social, cultural and historical environment. With Novak’s work one is left to ponder these very questions. Is Grotesque a rebellion? Or is it an inextricable element of beauty?
Grayson Perry’s ceramic works portray this polemic, further, by making them superficially beautiful (as beauty has been notoriously claimed to have been) and underneath it remains the darker motives of an artist who tries to wrest with disturbing truths (or shall one call them home truths, with a larger social back drop to them) that question issues of public/private dialectic. His works that deserve mention here are, “Coming Out Dress 2000”, “We’ve Found the Body of your Child 2000”or the “Boring Cool People 1999” (reminds one of Eliot’s famous lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock “In the room the women come and go, Talking of Michaelangelo”).
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Not only does he deal with issues like cross-dressing, child abuse and social sterility (about spiritually hollow “cool” fashionistas or the demanding violence of the utilitarian age), but also, he plays with this abnormal interrelation between beauty and grotesque. He raises questions about taste and the sublime. In short he subverts the notion of beauty with beauty that is skin deep! Grotesque thus becomes Beauty that is kin deep in this works! Reality is a diabolical façade and Perry questions whether hegemony denotes or connotes the medium of taste in art.
Thus equating expression with grotesque beauty beyond the limited categories of high or low taste, his avant-garde expressionism becomes a solitary modicum of aesthetic experience, which is new and which is whole (if whole comprises of an aesthetic stance that offers no definite and certain understanding of art’s end but generates a range of teasing/shocking possibilities of that, which is an illusion in itself: Bourgeois ideology).
Figure 1: Coming Out Dress, 2000. He poses as Claire, his feminine alter ego. All his works deal with these two sides to his sexuality quite deeply, especially in ‘Transvestite Brides of Christ 2000’ and ‘Contained Anger1999’, respectively, that questions the significance of male-role models. But what is interesting is that Perry is experimenting with representation, rather then pottery, and that is why his artwork combines issues of an innocent observer or rather tries to destroy the comfortable distance with which an observer may guard their subjective spaces.
Transvestite to transgression, the Chapman Brothers question the inevitability or orthodox value of canonical (classical) artworks. This travesty or mockery of canonical lofty seriousness is reflected in their works, through devises of defaced and tortured figures, which for them amount to the complete picture of Beauty (of an era that is grotesque, in it’s realization of a past, present and future that cannot bear to sift through the beastly side of socio-cultural conditions, anymore or unlike the others). This becomes a subject behind their sculptures that bursts with mockery, tragedy exploding with grotesque farce.
They usher in a new experiment with taste, bad taste and the notions of good taste. Art moves into the realms of public or mass ‘low’ category, which becomes an essential democratic medium for evoking or carrying forward a provocation to rouse the sense of that horrifying answerless void. With the Chapman brothers there is a sadist tone attached to their insult or reiteration of Goya’s influence especially in their recreation of his “Disasters of War”, which inflict bold horror. But the grandeur of that horror is reduced to a trivial and yet a sardonic sensation taste comes off them.
They twist the sensation of violence into an aesthetic ground and arouse a variety of physical and mental demands for perceiving Beauty amidst such a squandering grotesqueness. Beauty here lies in the release from holding back appreciation, awe and complete shock. Violence does not stand-alone and nor does any other human emotion. “Sex, 2003” is thus desire, decay, diabolical, deliberate, freedom or defeat. Purity is not that far from its pornographic mockery of it and they are interrelated in their apparent verisimilitude.
A true representation of kitsch art, their works like Fuckface and Zygotic Acceleration, roused shock as they attempted to portray the sexualisation of children due to the media and increased gender awareness. These treatments nevertheless push questions about morality that grotesque beauty actually challenges. Thus morality and beauty in its aesthetic straight forwardedness seem to flatten out newer boundaries of experiences, which the Chapman brothers challenge through their craftsmanship.
Traditional Sculpture, especially in the hands of the Chapman Brothers and Justin Novak or Grayson Perry are objects of anti-canonical parody, grotesque imitations or thought-provoking reverse-discourses. All these postmodern artists are challenging aesthetic experience. All these artworks succumb to one the power of the grotesque that sublimates beauty with its truth, and they make us realize that truth is not about a fixed standard, but accepting the actual absence of it.
What makes contemporary art more beastly in its beauty is the power to derive happiness (or sado-masochist satisfaction) out of this grotesqueness. The grotesque shocks but this is a pleasure in itself, because it is the very representation of the consciousness. Theatre and artwork met with experimentalism in the stage by Artaud, who made audience a spectator to cruelty that is harsh, exceptionally brutal and yet beautiful. By shattering estrangement and by creating something that allows no ‘objectivity’ (in the likes of Kant or Brecht) Artaud demands a complete involvement of the senses. Moreover, this is where art threatens to change the soul of the perceiver by its dominating beauty, which horrifies the perceiver with its verity and unique angst.
Wittgenstein’s concept of "seeing-as," allows contemporary art to shun master narratives completely and standout on their own purely as visual sensations. From British Avant-Garde art that confuses common and the uncommon (like use of mannequin by Chapman Brothers or genitals replaced by the faces in their remake of Goya’s Disasters of Wars series). Grotesquerie is about questioning the status quo, about unflinching self-criticism and about embracing outsiders. From Simon Carroll deconstructing the chronology of ceramic vases with his pastiches like “Thrown Square Pot2005”, engages the observers mind with complex questions that he poses through the irregular construction of his surfaces.
The artists seem to dwell on the apparent hyperreality of contemporary situation, where art has become a vastly reproduced object – fractured beyond identity. Formlessness becomes the beauty without symmetry and deliberate cruelty - an aesthetic grotesqueness. Thus the gap between what is apparent and what may actually exists gives the artists ample space to bridge this defined categories with crushing forces of expressions that though grotesque to the shocked senses is ultimately beautiful by virtue of its truth.
- Hegel, Lectures on Fine Art, (edited by Hotho) “Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art,” Vol. 1.translated by T. M. Knox, 1973. < http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ae/contents.htm > 30.01.2007.
- Jakobson, Roman. “Language in Literature”. Ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1987
- Kant, Immanuel: The Critique of Judgement (1790), translated by Meredith, J. Adelaide: ebooks, 2004
- Keats, John. Poetical Works. London: Macmillan, 1884; Bartleby.com, 1999http://www.bartleby.com/126/41.html. [29.01.2007]; Online-Ed: First published February 1993; published July 1999 by Bartleby.com; Copyright Bartleby.com, Inc.
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